Trump’s Balk on Abortion Ban Sends Shockwaves Through Pro-Life Movement

Reactions from the pro-life movement have ranged from mixed to entirely negative.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the media during a visit to a Chick-fil-A restaurant on April 10, 2024 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the media during a visit to a Chick-fil-A restaurant on April 10, 2024 in Atlanta, Georgia. (photo: Megan Varner / Getty)

Donald Trump’s refusal to support abortion restrictions at the federal level has prompted serious soul-searching within the pro-life movement, leading activists and commentators alike to express disappointment, brace for abortion advocates to gain ground, and even reassess the cause’s relationship with the Republican presidential contender.

The widespread reactions came after Trump — whose appointment of Supreme Court justices while president has been hailed as instrumental to the 2022 overturning of Roe v. Wade —announced in an April 8 video message that “the states will determine” the future of abortion in the U.S., failing to endorse a 15-week federal abortion ban supported by many pro-life organizations.

“My view is now that we have abortion where everybody wanted it, from a legal standpoint, the states will determine by vote or legislation, or perhaps both, and whatever they decide must be the law of the land; in this case, the law of the state,” Trump said in the video.

The presidential candidate added that his position was “all about the will of the people” and that voters must follow their “heart, or, in many cases, your religion or your faith.” Two days later, he told the media that he would not sign a national abortion ban if he retook the White House.

Reactions from the pro-life movement have ranged from mixed to entirely negative. Some have critiqued Trump’s decision while still emphasizing that he is the preferred pro-life candidate in November, while others have stressed that the former president holds no genuine pro-life convictions and instead appeals to life-affirming causes only when politically convenient for him.

“It’s possible to imagine making progress on pro-life policy goals under a Trump administration,” National Review’s Alexandra DeSanctis said in a social-media post responding to the GOP contender’s video message. “But pro-lifers need to recognize that Donald Trump is not a pro-life candidate, and we shouldn’t assume he’ll govern like this issue matters to him.”

Even Catholic Vote, which has endorsed Trump’s election bid, criticized the presidential contender’s position.

“Merely delegating abortion policy to individual states falls short of addressing the gravity of the issue,” Logan Church, the advocacy group’s political director, told the Register.

Nonetheless, Catholic Vote expressed its “confidence that a Trump administration will once again appoint officials who advocate for pro-life principles, including the protection of conscience rights, limitations on taxpayer funding for abortion, and the reinforcement of pro-life measures at the state level.”


Political Repercussions

Some pro-life leaders, like Shawn Carney of 40 Day for Life, told EWTN News that Trump’s decision not to support a federal ban “makes sense,” given that a 15-week federal abortion ban “would’ve been a disaster politically.”

The measure would likely not get enough votes to pass Congress presently, though polling indicates that the general public is in favor of restricting abortions after the first trimester, a position held by the majority of European countries.

But other pro-life advocates worry that by abandoning the issue at a national level, Trump will embolden Democrats to “fill the legislative void” left by Republicans with radical pro-abortion policies.

“Saying the issue is ‘back to the states’ cedes the national debate to the Democrats, who are working relentlessly to enact legislation mandating abortion throughout all nine months of pregnancy,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America advocacy group, in a statement.

Pro-life leaders have also expressed concern about the impact Trump’s decision will have throughout the GOP, given the former president’s vise grip on party leadership.

The effects were, in fact, immediate, with GOP Senate candidate Kari Lake taking Trump’s lead after the Arizona Supreme Court upheld a 19th-century abortion ban, underscoring that state voters should decide the issue and that she would oppose any federal limitations of abortion.

A possible silver lining amid the crushing disappointment for some pro-life activists may be that, in the absence of opportunities to restrict abortion, Republicans may be more willing to collaborate with Democrats on policies that reduce the demand for abortion. For instance, in her statement, Lake underscored that she would be backing policies like paid family leave, baby bonuses, and making adoption more affordable (though she also indicated support for in vitro fertilization, which the Church condemns as an immoral practice).

Concern that Trump’s posturing on abortion is purely a matter of politics, not principles, was deepened when the former president criticized Arizona’s Supreme Court, saying its ruling “went too far” and “will be straightened out,” just days after he said states would decide the issue.

“Funny how things move from ‘it’s a states’ right issue’ to ‘this state went too far’ within a matter of days. This man is not your ally, pro-lifers,” said the American Solidarity Party, a third party inspired by Catholic social teaching, whose presidential candidate, Peter Sonski, is a former Register editor.


Catholic Commentators

Ross Douthat, a columnist for The New York Times, went even farther in his criticisms of Trump’s pro-life bona fides, suggesting in an April 10 column that Trump is “an instigator for the country’s pro-choice turn,” given that his style of conservatism “is entirely misaligned with the pro-life movement as it wants and needs to be perceived.”

“If you set out to champion the rights of the most vulnerable human beings while promising protection and support for women in their most vulnerable state, and your leader is a man famous for his playboy lifestyle who exudes brash sexism and contempt for weakness, people are going to have some legitimate questions about whether they can trust you to make good on your promises of love and care,” wrote Douthat.

The columnist added that, given that pro-lifers have hitched their cause to Trump, the movement is now effectively held hostage by a candidate who has demonstrated no principled commitment to their goals, while also possibly pushing the country further left on abortion through his character.

Roe is gone,” he noted. “But now they’re trapped in a world where their image is defined more by the dealmaker’s values than by their own.”

Catholic commentator Ramesh Ponnuru wrote in The Washington Post that Trump’s “indifference to the pro-life cause is probably his most honest statement of his views in years” and criticized the former president and the entire GOP for doing “essentially nothing to prepare for the possibility that Roe would be overturned” and for now embracing a “path of least resistance” approach.

“The pro-life movement is now seeing some of the downsides of following a man who cares nothing about its cause and has poor impulse control,” wrote Ponnuru in National Review.


Push Back

Some pro-lifers have pushed back at criticisms of Trump, emphasizing that he is a better option than President Joe Biden, a Catholic who supports the radical expansion of abortion access, and arguing that publicly criticizing Trump hurts his election chances.

Lila Rose, head of the pro-life activist group LiveAction, bristled at these critiques.

“Since when must political candidates become golden calves that we must worship and never question?” she said on X.

Rose added that she never said not to vote for Trump and has repeatedly said that Biden is “atrocious” for the pro-life cause. But the pro-life leader made clear that no one is above criticism for failing to defend the most vulnerable — including the politician who some have called “the most pro-life president in history.”

“The low expectations for conservative voters is a plague, and the insistence that we must never criticize or set records straight among our own ‘tribe’ is deeply toxic,” she said. “It’s not a commitment to truth or goodness; it’s a cult of personality.”

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